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A Yankee Notebook

August 4, 2014


MONTPELIER – The time was the start of the Sixties; the camera was a tiny 35mm Zeiss-Ikon Contina, with probably the best lens I’ve ever used. But it lacked a built-in light meter, so I carried one with me: camera in one breast pocket, meter in the other. The common choice was between Kodachrome (slow speed, but rich colors) and Ektachrome (a bit faster, but fading with age). I shot everywhere, from the top of Katahdin and Washington to the Wind River Range of Wyoming and the Sunday dormitory parlors of Mount Holyoke and Bennington.

That summer of 1960 I shot half a dozen slides of our trail crew from the New York State Conservation Department (now the Department of Environmental Conservation) as we replaced an Adirondack leanto that had been muckled in a storm by a big falling spruce. Over the years those slides disappeared into the black hole invariably created by multiple moves and storages, but somewhere along the way I must have had them digitized, because they popped up the other day in a computer file titled “iPhoto Library Recovered Photos.” It was instant time travel.

There were six of us. Hughes Kilburn was the boss of the crew. During the winter he was walking boss at the bobsled run near Lake Placid, so we knew each other already from my working there. Doug Bissonette, a quiet guy whom for some reason the black flies favored, was a regular at the Department, and later went on to a career there. The summer help comprised me, Burton Smith from Kerosene Heights in Keene, and Franny and Al from somewhere over near Elizabethtown. On Mondays our crew was often a bit diminished; Burt and Franny spent much of the weekend in various watering holes. Al, though he almost always made it, was not always at his best.

The walk to and from the job each day was invigorating – 3.8 miles on a smooth trail (formerly a logging tote road) that climbed gently beside the crystalline Indian Pass Brook. Our pay started and ended at the parking lot; the hike took us about an hour going in, and quite a bit less coming out. Nine- or ten-hour days, no overtime. We stashed our tools in the woods near the job: chainsaw, gas and oil cans, files, axes, spuds, peavies, log carriers, and heavy hammers. Hughes had an official New York State leanto design sheet, which I squirreled away at the end of the job and, over half a century later, still have in a file drawer.

The clearing where the old leanto had been crushed was a long-abandoned logging camp site. The killer spruce had simply done what trees always do in a storm when there’s an open area beside them; it fell toward the opening. We cleared away the tree and the rubble in about half a day, cut up the old logs into firewood lengths, and piled the asphalt shingles in a mound in the woods.

It must have been early June; the last of the ice and snow were gone and the black flies were fierce and clinging. Everybody had his own remedy for them, and some of them helped a little. My personal potion mixed equal parts of citronella, oil of tar, sweet oil, and pennyroyal half-and-half with 6-12, a then-popular and mildly effective repellent. Whether or not it even slowed the flies down, I’m not sure; but I definitely smelled as though it should have.

Hughes walked through the nearby woods while we cut up the old leanto and marked about a dozen “cabin logs.” Franny, on his good days, was a hotshot tree feller; he laid them low. The rest of us went to work peeling them with “spuds,” salvaged automobile leaf spring halves rounded and sharpened at one end and fitted with a handle at the other. They have just enough curve to get under the loose, moist bark of an early-summer spruce and peel it cleanly in pretty big sheets. It’s fairly disagreeable work, most of all because the sap mixes with ambient dirt and turns the palms of your hands black as coal and sticky as maple syrup. If you forget and swat at flies with hands like that, by noon you could perform in an old-fashioned minstrel show. It took gasoline and lots of soap and hot water to get it off at the end of the day.

We used the old corner stones to support the new bottom logs, and had as well the advantage of the old fireplace being intact, which saved us packing Sakrete and mason’s tools; but each day we carried in as many rough roof and floor boards as we could shoulder, several bundles of asphalt shingles on packboards, and a few pounds of spikes and nails. All of us, it turned out, had worked on log buildings before, so we knew pretty well what we were about. There’s one slide of me with a pair of dividers, scribing a log to fit the log below it with a saddle notch. Hughes was dainty with the chainsaw; he cut out most of the notches. Then Burton, who must have started using a double-bitted axe about the time he teethed, finished them off to within a millimeter of my marks. I never saw him take an extra crack at a spot; his axe was so sharp, he could shave hair off his wrist with it.

A leanto’s a lot easier than a cabin – only three walls, and one of them only four logs high. By the middle of the second week we’d rolled the ridge, brow, and purlin into place and were peeling spruce saplings for the rafters. Al went around the rafter tails and roof boards with a sharp hand saw, and we were ready for roofing. But then we discovered the roofing nails had been left in Hughes’ pickup. Running was my territory; so while everybody else raked the chips into a pile for kindling and stacked the wood scraps under cover, I made a dash for the parking lot and the little brown cardboard box of galvanized nails. The next week we went on to another leanto, up on Mount Marcy, where I spent a few nights ferrying materials up beyond where a pack horse could go. That little exercise did pay overtime, and had the added dividend of Mother showing up one day, fully 4.5 miles in from the parking lot, with the baby on her back and a cake in her arms. My! Just think what a flood of almost forgotten memories a few old slides can conjure up.

Photo by Willem lange